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Electricity Outages Plague Ghana

March 22, 1998

ACCRA, Ghana (AP) _ Slowly, the driver edges his car into the busy intersection, blasting his horn and flashing his lights before speeding past the darkened corner and making it safely to the other side.

The power is out, the traffic light is dead and automotive pandemonium reigns. This is just a hint of the electrical nightmare that has been growing in Ghana since January.

Industry has been hobbled, thousands of people have been laid off and rationing programs mean the electricity flips off in nearly every Accra neighborhood for 12 hours a day. Ghana, long one of Africa’s stronger economies, is struggling to get by on generators, candles and oil lamps.

Water levels at the country’s main hydroelectric dam, Ghana’s prime source of electricity, have dropped drastically because of poor rainfall. Power output is down more than 45 percent.

But with President Clinton arriving Monday to begin a 12-day swing through Africa, Ghanaian authorities are leaving little to chance.

Fearing an embarrassing electricity outage _ even though most places the president will visit already have priority for power _ generators have been installed nearly everywhere that he and Hillary Rodham Clinton will visit, according to a top Ghanaian official. Any sudden shutdown during their nine-hour stop will be immediately corrected.

``We cannot afford to let down our august visitor,″ the official said on condition his name not be used. ``This visit means a lot to Africa and to Ghana in particular.″

Clinton’s six-nation tour, which will focus on a plan to bolster trade and investment in Africa, also includes stops in Uganda, Rwanda, South Africa, Botswana and Senegal.

The electricity crisis, though, has many people here worrying the visit may mean little investment for their country.

``Ghana goes around saying `invest in my country,′ but this will scare investors away,″ said Sunil Wadhwani, who owns a small Accra plastics factory. ``Nobody would want to make a rush to investments here.″

Wahdwani _ who like many of Ghana’s small industrialists is Indian _ has been forced to lay off one quarter of his 60-person staff and slash work hours. The factory once operated around the clock, seven days a week. Now, it runs three 24-hour days a week. And even when there is electricity, he said power surges and outages plague production.

Whadwani’s employees, drenched in sweat as they fight the heat and the new production timetable, say they cannot work like this for long.

``If this continues for another six months we will not make it,″ said Jacob Aguleke, whose hours have been cut from 48 to 36 and his pay slashed accordingly. ``I’ve got four children and a wife. How can I live on 25 percent less pay?″ he demands.

Government attempts to fight the crisis include public awareness campaigns to cut consumption, a power-rationing system and moves to increase the thermal production of power. Accra has been divided into sections with residential areas getting 12 hours of power a day. Each neighborhood receives electricity alternately during the day or at night.

Industries have been allowed to operate for 24-hour stretches, but Wahdwani, for example, only gets a total of 72 hours of power a week.

Across Accra and nearly the whole country, the effects of the crisis are obvious.

Away from the hotels and restaurants that cater to foreigners and Accra’s wealthy elite, away from the enclave of embassies and the big government offices that either can afford generators or have priority for power, street after street is filled with pitch-black stores and houses. Darkness is interrupted only by a few generator-lit buildings and the flicker of candles and oil lamps.

At the Buckingham Palace restaurant, once a lively spot on the edge of town, waitresses hold oil lamps in one hand, while balancing trays for a few customers in the other.

They count change by the light of passing cars and work behind a bar lit only by a single candle jammed onto an overturned beer bottle.

``It is very difficult,″ said Vivian Boateng, whose family owns the restaurant, decrying the warm beer, lack of music, and dearth of customers. ``We are praying for rain.″

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